Category Archives: improv

Improvisation in Life

img_0194_smThe time I’ve spent at the The Upfront Theatre over the years in classes and performance have made me a better human being. I enjoyed writing this Insider Blog for Bellingham Experience at Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. Take a look at the article, and then take a class and see a show. 

Acting Insane

Some might think my friend and fellow actor, Glen Nelson Bristow, is a little nuts to have a full-time day job, be in stage plays almost year round, while also filmingGlen Nelson Bristow Rocky Horror Picture Show a web series, appearing in multiple short films, and doing stand up comedy sets at up to five venues a week. But he does it, and does it well. Check out my article about this dynamo at

New Adventures

I haven’t posted here in a while. I’ve been busy with…kids home for the summer,  enjoying the amazing Pacific Northwest outdoors, doing improv at The Upfront Theatre, acting in 48-hour Theatre festivals at the loveable Idiom Theatre, and starting a new project that I’m just dieing to share.

Family Planning and Other Stories, a TV pilot by the sharp Writer/Director Sue Mattson, will be filming in mid-October. Guess who’s in it? ME! I’m fortunate to be appearing (and learning a lot) in my role as Kat, a middle-aged mother who, upon encouragement from her volatile daughter Riley (played by the talented Sarah Waisman), heads into the unpredictable world of on-line dating.

The female-centered script is sharp and full of hilarious characters including Kat’s potential suitors, played by the talented Bill McQuaid and Michael Mitchell.

Check out our Indiegogo fundraising campaign for more details, and make a donation to help get this witty, playful project off the ground.

I also couldn’t help sharing this hilarious commercial starring the versatile Michael Mitchell in You Go Through Vladimir.

Help us get started at Indiegogo today, as there are only 23 days left to reach our $2000 goal. Stay tuned as I’ll be posting more insider details and photos here over the next couple of months.

Please comment here and tell me what you think.

Cheers to new adventures!

The Inspiration of New Experience

It’s no secret that improvisational acting (improv) classes at The Upfront Theatre have improved my self-confidence significantly over the past three years, but I still have a way to go to keep insecurity from rearing its ugly head.

To become a successful author, we must be able to talk to anyone about our book, and not only talk, but sell it. Pacific Northwest author and friend Kim Kircher has blogged about her struggles with self-promotion during her recent book tour for her memoir, The Next 15 Minutes.

Experts propose a variety of suggestions on how we may overcome our fears, but most of them boil down to plugging our nose and jumping in with both feet. The simple act of surviving leads to a sense of accomplishment, which incrementally builds self-esteem and confidence. Getting on stage every week and writing this blog is me jumping in with both feet.

To further that effort, I opened my mind to other new experiences as well. Believe it or not, I recently worked as an extra in a rap music video. While that may not sound like a natural fit for a suburban mom and environmental scientist, the fact that it was outside my comfort zone was exactly what I needed.

Below is the video itself, Take My Pain Away by Conceit, directed by Darkheart Visions Production’s talented Domenic Barbero. Although not appropriate for children, the song is stuck in my head.

For most of the video shoot, I just focused on not screwing up, but I also drank in the new experience. What if I want to write fiction someday about a musician, or a video extra, or a film maker? This experience, one that none of my fellow 2nd grade moms would consider in a million years, was not only potential research for some future opus, but also a way for me to chase down my own insecurities with a baseball bat.

Articles I’ve read say that extra work is so small that it shouldn’t even appear on an acting resume. But I feel like shouting about this from the roof tops. “Hey everybody, I was scared to death to appear in a music video and I did it anyway!” The experience also brought other unexpected benefits. I met some very interesting, smart, confident, and (of course) beautiful people and learned a ton of tiny details about video production, acting, and especially fake blood (Thanks Langley West!).

This past weekend I also auditioned for the Upfront Theatre’s mainstage ensemble. Although I didn’t get a call back this time, I was proud of myself for having the courage to try. I stayed calm and positive during the audition process, and I wasn’t too hard on myself afterward. Shutting down my inner critic was a huge step for me. I came away from my audition with a clear list of what I need to do next time to really shine, and also gained a completely unique experience that most of my friends would never dream of attempting. Who knows, maybe this experience will appear in my next article, short story, play, or manuscript.

In this article (Thanks Sandi Pants!), The Office’s Jenna Fischer suggests working as an extra, or background artist, as one of the best ways to get started in the entertainment industry. Her random early experiences connected her to the people who years later cast her on The Office.

We can’t know with certainty what our future will hold, but the range of possibility is much smaller without the inspiration of fresh experience. So the next time the insecurity monster shows up at your house, consider grabbing him by the arm and dragging him into your new experience with you, head first.

Portlandia is Speaking to Me

Anyone else out there seem to be hearing about Portlandia at every turn? It’s a comedy show on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) that seems to be in its own genre. Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, a member of Olympia, WA punk band Sleater Kinney, play a variety of characters that are quintessentially Pacific Northwest. The show is impressively written and directed by Jonathan Krisel.

Their writing is clever and reminds me of stand up comedy in that they make fun of everyday human experiences, but with a strong sense of silliness. I especially like their characters that are parents of a 5-year old. In short scenes we see these parents absurd attempts to get their child into the best private preschool, and then listen to their wall-banging love-making in celebration when their little guy is admitted.

It took me a couple of episodes to get used to the format because it is not a common approach, but by the third episode I was hooked.

Their river rafting characters particularly speak to me as a sometimes serious rafter, but what makes it special is that they take their ridiculousness one level further than you’d ever imagine.

I especially admire the writing on the show and connecting to the program makes me think I might want to try my hand at comedy writing someday.

If you haven’t given Portlandia a try yet, please do, and might I be so bold as to suggest you start with the episode, Mixology.


Speaking of Accents

While my North Dakota accent still needs some work, a friend sent me this great video of comedian Tim Wilson doing a number of Southern accents that help me realize I have a long way to go in perfecting my “Southern” accent.

Getting Out of the Way of the Story

For my monthly book club, a collection of well-educated mother’s of 8-year-olds known only to ourselves as the Readers and Breeders, we’re reading Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book, The Things They Carried. I would have never guessed our little group would choose or read a book about Vietnam because we all admit that since we had children we can no longer watch the news, horror movies, or anything that remotely involves harming children or animals. But here we are reading a story that encompasses all three in gentle yet precise detail.

According to the Amazon review, the book was a finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and “is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three.” I’m only half way through, and I have to admit that I’m not just reading it for pleasure or escape as I often do with book club fare, but this one I’m studying, dissecting, to observe what makes a Pulitzer finalist.

This morning I came along this little gem about storytelling buried deep in the heart of the book:

“Whenever he told the story, Rat had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion. It was a bad habit…because all that matters is the raw material, the stuff itself, and you can’t clutter it up with your own half-baked commentary. That just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic. What you have to do…is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself.”

A friend and I recently agreed that most books published today are much too long. I hate wading through a self-help book with rambling prose when I’m really just there for help.

The existing draft of my own memoir is still too long, full of self-analysis and the occasional soap box, so it’s good to be reminded that I don’t need to be afraid to cut away all that isn’t truly relevant, no matter how much I enjoyed writing it or how clever it makes me feel.

Staying out of the way of the story can also be applied to improvisational acting. The heart of a truly memorable improv scene can usually be summed up in a sentence or two, and yet on stage, we can struggle to find the “primal truth” that’s often completely obvious to the audience even after four minutes of dialogue.

So in my writing, and my improv, I’m going to take Mr. O’Brien’s sage advice and try to get the heck out of my own way, let the story show itself, in all its naked glory, unencumbered by fuss and convention. Wish me luck, and to you all I wish the same.

Improv and Writing: A Parallel Training

I’ve been talking in the voice of a sophisticated Southern belle for about 24 hours. It rendered my husband speechless for hours and annoyed my children to the point of embarrassment within only a few minutes. Last night, I tried it out on stage in my improv class at the stellar Upfront Theatre.

I’ve been reading the book Acting on Impulse by Carol Hazenfield. The latter part of her book emphasizes the deepening of characters and story. I realized that each exercise Hazenfield proposes in her chapter “Playing with Fire: Creating Richer Characters” would also help me create deeper characters in my writing. By inhabiting the character, becoming them, physically, emotionally, and vocally, their thoughts, dialogue, and vocabulary come forward organically. I don’t have to “think” about it, she’s just there. After “becoming” the Southern belle, Sallie Mae, for only a few minutes, my posture, sentence structure, temperament, the speed and harmony of my voice, and even my vocabulary changed instantly. I’ve heard many of my teachers say, “we can act at the top of our intelligence.” I only yesterday realized that my intelligence also included the superficial wisdom of a proud Southern woman who likes to flirt and be pampered. I only needed to let her out.

Perhaps as revenge, my husband has issued me a challenge: to next inhabit a character from Fargo, ND. I’m not sure if his challenge was simply to escape Sallie Mae’s relentless drawl, or to see if she is just a fluke of my imagination, but I’m going to give it a try. Although I’m having a difficult time getting Sallie Mae to leave, I’m looking forward to finding my new friend from North Dakota, and perhaps someday, developing her as a character in a book that I have yet to conceive.

I encourage every writer to “become” their characters for more than a few hours to fully understand their inner workings, their approach to the world, and their motivations within a story’s setting.

Which character are you ready to become?

Improv at Work

To follow up on yesterday’s post, Improvisation in Life, incorporating improv principles can also help your career. Thanks to my friend Clare for this article  by Bryce Christiansen over at the Savvy Intern about Tina Fey’s business acumen as described in her humor memoir Bossy Pants. The focus is how she uses improv in her relationships at work.

I love Bossy Pants and would like my natural voice to come forth as freely in my writing as hers does.

Classes with the theme of “improv for business” are available across the country, including at my favorite Upfront Theatre, so if you’re serious about your work and haven’t yet taken one, get out there. It will change the way you look at your job, and probably make it a lot more fun!

(photo courtesy of the Savvy Intern)

Improvisation in Life

My good friend Tracy recently mentioned that she was studying improv (improvisational acting) every day without really trying because the lessons of improv are the lessons of life. She’s not the first one to say that, I’ve heard it many times, but I think it’s finally sinking in for me. When you incorporate the tenets of improv in your interactions with others, you’ll appreciate your relationships more and the quality of your life will probably improve.

Thanks to Billy Tierney, Bellingham’s Upfront Theatre Artistic Director, I found the TED speech below, The Way of Improvisation by storyteller, poet, and improviser Dave Morris of Victoria, BC. If you’re not familiar with TED talks, they’re short presentations by some of the worlds most interesting people who have “ideas worth spreading.”

My three years of improv study have certainly changed my life for the better. Dave’s advice (to play and be present, let yourself fail, listen well, say yes…and, play the game, and relax and have fun) is not hard work like changing your diet or exercise regime, its something you can incorporate all day long in your existing lifestyle.

Check out his video, give it a try in your life, and let me know how it goes for you!